Imagine trying to anticipate everything you might want to do in your recording studio over the next ten or so years – and then trying to design a new studio to accommodate that, down to the last table, patchbay, and wall jack.
That is what I’ve been doing the last several months (in addition to everything else). But that dream looks like it is about to become reality: Construction on my new studio is scheduled to start by the end of February, taking 4-6 months overall. In the featured article, I cover some of main considerations I’ve been working through.
But that’s not the only thing I’ve been up to; I’ve been working on music, beta-testing a new quad modulator, and more. Let’s get to it:
- featured article: I’m building a new studio from scratch. This has meant learning about immersive audio, acoustics, and all sorts of construction details (including local building codes).
- Alias Zone updates: I have a goal of playing more percussion as part of my music. Here’s one crazy idea I’m trying.
- Learning Modular updates: I’ve been playing with a new quad modulation source that’s replacing several other modules in my systems. There will be a “deep dive” on it January 13.
- Patreon updates: A detailed breakdown of my latest song, some patching techniques using a Polyfusion modular, Robert Rich on performing live, and samples from my Prophet VS.
- upcoming events: I will be part of a panel on modular synthesis at the upcoming NAMM show.
My New Studio
My current studio is in the guest room of our home. It has a lovely view of the plants and wildlife in our courtyard, and even has a non-parallel wall to break up resonances. But it’s not large enough: I can’t set up my performing system and more than one keyboard at the same time, and I have to shift things around every time I want to record something new. Plus, being located downstairs, the ceiling is too low for overhead speakers to monitor immersive sound.
So, we bit the bullet and decided to build me a new studio from scratch, over our garage. This has meant trying to anticipate everything I might want to do it for the foreseeable future, to make sure all of those things are built into the plans. Here are a few of those things…
Room Shape & Acoustics
The image above gives you an overview of what I have in mind. It is one large room, essentially divided into two boxes: the 17’ 1” x 17’ 2” (5.2 meters) “listening” side on the right with a 9’ 6” (2.9 meter) ceiling, and the 18’ 2” x 21’ 2” (5.5 x 6.5 meters) “instrument” side on the left with a 8’ 6” (2.6 meter) ceiling. What looks like a center divider is actually open between the two spaces, with a large wooden beam marking the transition.
In a perfect world, there would be no parallel walls in a studio. In reality, the garage I am building on top of is full of parallel walls. I could build new angled walls inside that space, but I would lose a lot room, and it would also compromise my ability to look out and enjoy the mountains where I live (a lot of studios have no windows, but I want mine to be an inspiring place I look forward to entering every day – and the views are part of that). So instead, we’re building a double outside wall for insulation, and then adding roughly 40 acoustic panels on the walls and in the ceiling-to-wall corners to absorb and diffuse the sound, plus four “mega” bass traps in the major corners.
Most off-the-shelf commercial sound treatment is nowhere near deep enough to tame the bass frequencies, and bass is the biggest problem with my current studio. Therefore, Jason Fink of MandoFink Cases is building me a set of 4’ x 2’ x 6” (1.2 x 0.6 x 0.15 m) sound treatment panels, inspired by the bass trap design from Acoustics Insider. Roughly half of them will have binary diffusor faces, such as the ceiling-to-wall corner trap prototype below. These will be mostly on the “instrument” side to keep that space lively, while the “listening” side will have mostly open-faced panels to dampen the reflections.
Bass builds up the most in the corners. Unfortunately, most rooms have a door or some other obstruction in at least one corner, making it hard to treat every corner of a room. Building a room from scratch means I can anticipate things like that up front. Therefore, the location of doors and windows has been based around each corner having a diagonal 3.5-4’ (1-1.2 m) floor-to-ceiling bass trap, with 8” (0.2 m) of insulation and a large air gap behind. These will actually be large doors I can open, and use for storage as well.
The split ceiling height design was caused by a collision between requirements for immersive sound versus local building regulations. After doing a lot of math, I worked out that a 9.5’ (2.9 m) ceiling height would be ideal for my listening position. However, our house is built into a slope, and the upper left corner of the diagram above would have been too high, as the hillside falls away along the left wall. We already have a flat-roof pueblo-style home with each space having a different ceiling height, so we carried that design idea over and gave the right side the ceiling height it needed for immersive sound, while lowering the ceiling on the left to meet code requirements.
Ready for Dolby Atmos
Despite the failed adoptions of quadraphonic and then 5.1 surround sound systems, I believe that Dolby (with the help of Apple) is on the right path with their Atmos system. Rather than having one channel per speaker, each instrument track is given a position and space, and then the Atmos renderer converts these positions into the levels needed by each of however many speakers you have – including two, in the case of binaural sound. AirPods Pro plus a growing number of other ear buds and headphones are Atmos-capable, as well as a large number of “sound bars” you can buy for your computer or TV. Some car manufacturers and even clubs are incorporating Atmos systems.
Additionally, I feel that electronic music is the genre best suited for immersive sound. When it comes to acoustic and amplified music like rock, pop, jazz, and classical, we have an expectation of where the sound sources are coming from – we can visualize the actual musicians. However, electronic music has no such history or constraints; much of it is specifically created to create an enveloping atmosphere – and immersive audio helps realize that goal.
Since I was building a room from scratch, I decided to go for the “equidistant” speaker layout, where each of the 7 speakers on the same plane as my ear, the 1 subwoofer, and the 4 overhead speakers (creating a “7.1.4” system) are all the same distance from my head. This makes it much easier to make sure all of the speakers are phase-aligned to create a proper acoustic environment. The math worked out to roughly a 6’ (1.8m) distance from the center of head to the face of each speaker. (So-called “surround controllers” typically have delay per channel to help you correct the phase in a non-equidistant “orthogonal” layout, such as the typical rectangular box of most studios.)
The current plans are to keep my current Focal Solo6 Be speakers for my main L/R monitors, and use the Focal Alpha 65 Evo for the remaining speakers. Ideally all of the speakers would be the same, but I can’t afford nicer speakers for all 11 that will be surrounding me, and I know a lot of the time I will still be mixing and monitoring in stereo. Also, another feature of surround controllers is multi-band EQ per channel to even out their response. I am currently undecided which subwoofer I am going with.
I plan to stick with Ableton Live as my DAW, which currently means using the external Atmos Renderer software plus optionally some plugins to make the current version of Live Atmos-compatible. Several DAWs have already announced built-in Atmos support; I will be shocked if Live does not join that group.
It would be nice if I could use one set of audio interfaces for everything…but that’s not going to work out.
Many modern audio interfaces use USB-C or Thunderbolt for their connection to the computer. Unfortunately, most USB-C or Thunderbolt cables are 3 meters (10′) or shorter, unless you go with still-expensive optical cables. My instruments are going to be much further away than that, so for recording, I’m going to keep my current AVB ethernet-networked audio system plus an additional Focusrite Clarett+ OctoPre piggybacked onto the second MOTU 24ai, creating a 64 in/16 out system, with the interfaces placed near the instruments. This will also allow me to drive monitor speakers (Focal Alpha 80 Evo) near the equipment remotely from the computer.
When it comes time to mix, I will change the audio configuration to use a surround controller plus interface, such as the Avid MTRX II (possibly with the DAD Monitor Operating Module). In addition to per-channel EQ and delay, surround controllers make it easier to quickly change between speaker configurations, such as stereo, quad, 5.1, and full 7.1.4 Atmos.
I also plan to keep my SSL BiG SiX, which I am using as a computer peripheral to warm up tracks plus make quick overdubs. A patchbay will allow me to patch it directly into the main stereo monitors as needed.
One piece of the puzzle I am still figuring out is monitoring other surround sources such as streaming audio or video through my studio system: some say it will require a separate A/V converter and way to get that routed to the same set of speakers; others say it should be built into the computer OS. This is one of the many things I still have to learn.
And a thousand other details…
In addition to the big topics mentioned above, other things I am working out ahead of time is getting USB in addition to ethernet between the computer in the main storage closet (upper right) and the equipment stations (lower left), passing HDMI around for recording videos and live streaming, sharing the central sample rate clock via coax, power and audio wiring, lighting, heating & ventilation (I’m going with a mini-split heat pump system plus a large-blade DC ceiling fan to keep the ambient noise down), and even a remote recording light. It’s probably going to be one of the most stressful periods of my life – but I can’t wait to play with the end result.
If you are a Patreon +5v and above subscriber, I’ll be going much deeper into detail on each of these subjects and more over the course of this year. I’ll also show the rest of the results in a future newsletter. In the meantime, if you don’t hear from me…I’m busy talking to the construction crew, making sure everything turns out as I planned.
Alias Zone Updates
What’s happening with the new album(s) I keep promising? The short version is: I’m still working; more details are in the Patreon Track Breakdown mentioned below. The long version is…
I was very active composing and performing live music from late 2021 through late 2023. I recorded everything I created, and I thought it would be a relatively simple matter of cleaning up those recordings, maybe adding an overdub or two, and releasing a series of albums featuring that material in quick succession.
But after some soul-searching with one of my musical mentors (Howard Givens of Spotted Peccary Music), I decided to take a different tact. This included tightening up the compositions from their original extended length performances, remixing them, and adding overdubs not just from a couple guest musicians but also more of what reflects my personal interests, including more hand percussion – including the “frame drum” above (which is actually a piece of art my wife Trish was working on).
As a bonus, editing down the longer pieces will create room on each album to add new, shorter compositions to them, to help introduce my music to more people who may frequent streaming services and music shows which tend to ignore anything over ten minutes in length.
The editing has been the easy part. Adding the percussion overdubs has taken a bit longer, but has been satisfying, taking some of the pieces in new directions. Where my creative block has been is creating the new pieces: free time has been at a premium, and I’ve been overthinking how the new pieces should fit in with the existing material. That has finally been loosening up, and I plan to stay in the studio rather than on the road for at least the first half of 2024 to get more of these albums finished.
Learning Modular Updates
Jim Coker of Five12 has referred to me as a “shadow developer” as I help a few companies behind the scenes with some of their new module plans.
One of the modules I’ve helped with is Five12’s QV-L Quad Variable LFO. It is a quad digital LFO with a number of different modulation shapes – including two different smooth random modes, plus sample & hold stepped random – and a pair of displays that show you exactly what each channel is up to. It also has a large number of other features including internal modulation, envelopes, signal scaling and offset, and preset memory.
In my studio modular, a pair of QV-Ls now replace what I used a Studio Electronics STE.16, Sonic Potions MAL-2, nonlinearcircuits Hypster and Triple Sloth, and half of what I use Pamela’s New Workout for. In my gigging case, I’m thrilled to have presets to quickly switch between songs during a set, plus the built in utility mixer functions to help properly scale and offset the modulations.
On January 13, Jim, myself, and Steve Turner will be live streaming a deep-dive into the QV-L – see the link above; this should also include the replay after the 13th. (Here is a preliminary video if you want to learn a bit ahead of time.) It will also feature a little bit of my music…
Also, I have been interviewed for Waveform Magazine Issue 12; it covers a lot of my past, including my time in the music industry working for Sequential Circuits and others. Look for that to appear soon.
On January 1 I posted for my Patreon subscribers a detailed Track Breakdown of how I created my most recent song, Premonition. It was a change in workflow for me, as I recored it a layer at a time, instead of my normal perform-everything-at-once approach. In addition to some nice tricks using the modular, it also features a Prophet VS, Waldorf Iridium, Expressive E Osmose, and a 22” wind gong…
In addition to that piece, since the last newsletter I have also posted:
- The adventure I had patching Toto’s vintage Polyfusion modular
- An example (with patch diagram) of audio-rate pulse width modulation
- A conversation with Robert Rich about performing electronic music live (including some snippets of his recent Ambient Lounge performance with Steve Roach)
- Multi-cycle samples of each of the waves in my Prophet VS, to properly capture its hardware artifacts in addition to the underlying waves
All of the above are available for my +5v and above subscribers; the Robert Rich piece is also available to my 1v/oct subscribers.
As always, I encourage you to check out the index for my Patreon channel: There’s a lot of content up there, and a 7 day free trial if you want to try out a subscription to access a particular post that’s not already free. If you want to be a fly on the wall while I’m working, my Patreon channel will get you close to that experience.
In addition to the Five12 QV-L Deep Dive mentioned above, I will be attending the NAMM Show later this month, including participating in a panel on modular synthesis hosted by the Sound Synthesis Club. It will be Thursday January 25 at 11:00 AM in Room 202AB (Anaheim Convention Center, second floor). For the rest of the show my home base will be the Alan R. Pearlman Foundation booth: #8600 (although Saturday I might check out the Synth Maker Showcase being arranged by Buchla and others).
After that, I am planning on focusing on studio work for at least the first half of 2024. As for live performances, I expect I will be playing at Knobcon this September. If you are interested in having me play at one of your events, please get in touch using the contact form at the bottom of this web page (or at the bottom of the Alias Zone web site).
may 2024 be your best year yet –